The mainstream wellness industry is repackaging traditional healing practices. Makanaka Tuwe invites us to reflect on the repackaging and our choices around 'self-care'.
It doesn’t matter if it's from the hills of the Himalayas, the Waitākere Ranges ngahere, the Amazon rainforests or an African jungle, the repackaging of bush practices into mainstream practices is a manifestation of the insidiousness of racialised capitalism. Coined by Cedric J Robinson in 1983, ‘racialised capitalism’ describes how wealth accumulation is connected to severe inequality among people.
What is lauded as new-age spirituality is often the ancestral technologies of Indigenous populations rooted in ritual, ceremony and relationships, which really have nothing to do with ‘me time’ or treating yourself. Now, I’m not against taking time to tend to one’s body and spirit. However, I am interested in the ruptures that the billion-dollar mainstream wellness industry causes with its erasure of Indigenous communities in favour of social-media-friendly aesthetics and hyper-individualism, and the role that capitalism plays in all of it.
What is lauded as new-age spirituality is the ancestral technologies of Indigenous populations
I specifically call it the ‘mainstream wellness industry’ to speak to the commercialisation of wellbeing and to acknowledge that many of us have our own understandings of wellness outside of Western conceptualisations. Understandings grounded in our indigeneity and the way we see the world. For instance, I define wellness as nurturing and tending to a web of relationships made up of myself, the collective, the ancestors, earth and Mwari (God). This is the foundation of hunhu, a Shona socioethical way of being that emphasises the interconnectedness of all. We say “munhu, munhu nekuda kwevanhu”, which loosely translates to “I am because, we are”. This highlights that to be ‘well’, individual and collective healing and justice are paramount.
When I first started speaking about embodied self-care through Sesa Mathlo Apothecary, I was met with questions by workshop participants about the commodification of spirituality and the racism prevalent in wellness spaces. While I agree that mainstream representations of wellness that erase Indigenous roots are problematic, I also needed tools to return to my centre. I needed to ground my practice in the radical love and care for the collective that I understand self-care and wellness to be. I’ve previously shared that the imperialist agenda is to rewrite history and centre whiteness as the global descriptor of all things, and the importance of resisting that.
The imperialist agenda is to rewrite history and centre whiteness as the global descriptor of all things
In this recentring and reclamation of the essence of wellness, I thought about the erasure and misuse of activist and poet Audre Lorde’s quote and musings on self-care. Oftentimes marketing campaigns for wellness products and slogans for merchandise only feature one line from her essay, ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence’. This invites consumers to view the purchase as an act of self-preservation, while simultaneously erasing Lorde’s message. In her 1988 essay collection, A Burst of Light, Lorde was battling cancer, and reflecting on the effects of overextension and the biological consequences of systemic oppression.
“I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Nurture and care become fundamental in navigating a system designed to shorten your life. As a chronic stressor, racism has been connected to the increase in chronic inflammation among African Americans. Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting one from health threats, but high levels can promote heart attacks and metastatic cancers. Lorde’s reflection on the role of self-care is an invitation to centre it as an act of political warfare, not presenting it as something that involves “spending copious amounts of money to feel marginally better”, as author Sarah Taylor writes.
Commodified ancestral technologies are derived from practices that some communities are still vilified and penalised for
In recentring Shona philosophies and the works of Queer Black feminists like Audre as my guiding principles, I’ve also thought about how commodified ancestral technologies are derived from practices that some communities are still vilified and penalised for. I’ve personally been subject to a modern-day ‘witch hunt’ from some members of the African community. My crime? Being part of a ceremony that centred earth, outside of Abrahamic faiths. As texts and social media posts about my participation, and fabricated accounts of what happened at the activation, circulated and resulted in exclusion, it hit me how the demonisation of our practices is fundamentally about severing our relationship with the earth.
In Bloody Woman, Lana Lopesi speaks to the demonisation of women’s and Indigenous spirituality as introducing racialised, gendered and capitalistic power structures that created and reinforced new mechanisms of power. On the one hand, an Indigenous practice is rendered demonic and barbaric. On the other, it is repackaged and sold, using the labour of the same communities forced to adopt new ways of being
In places like Ghana, groups of women have been run out of the community after witchcraft accusations. In Bloody Woman, Lana Lopesi speaks to the demonisation of women’s and Indigenous spirituality as introducing racialised, gendered and capitalistic power structures that created and reinforced new mechanisms of power. On the one hand, an Indigenous practice is rendered demonic and barbaric. On the other, it is repackaged and sold, using the labour of the same communities forced to adopt new ways of being. In terms of African spirituality, the long-term effects of demonisation have sometimes stayed in our communities and shown up as witch hunts and exclusion. Ultimately, erasure and demonisation is a pathway facilitating profit to be made of Indigenous peoples’ intergenerational practices and labour.
When news came out about Indigenous young people who died in Canadian residential schools, I thought about how these schools were a tool of colonisation to sever connections to land, values, community and belief systems. At the same time, I thought about the commercialisation of practices like smudging and burning. These young people’s elders and ceremonial holders may have been prohibited from and punished for participating in practices now being mass-produced and bundled together for a Sephora witch starter kit, retailing at $63.00. Although the starter kit was cancelled after backlash, it highlighted the disconnect the mainstream wellness industry has from the traditions of these tools and commodification as an ongoing form of colonisation.
Although the Sephora witch starter kit was cancelled after backlash, it highlighted the disconnect the mainstream wellness industry has from the traditions of these tools
Originally, palo santo was used in rituals by Inca shamans in Peru, Ecuadorians and other Indigenous communities in South America; and white sage by Native Americans. The burning of sacred herbs was for ceremonial occasions, removing stagnant energies in the community and achieving better spiritual communication with their gods. The burning of herbs wasn’t necessarily used to ease feelings of discomfort, or as a persistent daily practice, as presented by the mainstream wellness industry; but to foster community and connection with the divine. Mainstream use of palo santo and sage erases the original intent and promotes deforestation and unethical harvesting practices. Harmful material-gathering systems move the practice away from a tradition that honours the tree, the land it grows on and the people who harvest it.
I think about turmeric, a spice that in recent years has been marketed as a superfood and is now widely available as a latte mix, and the exploitation of Indian farmers. It’s the simultaneous exploitation of land and Indigenous bodies, coupled with the erasure of their connection to these practices
Enforcing unethical planting and harvesting methods to meet demands and paying low wages to increase profit margins contribute to human trauma and environmental destruction. I think about turmeric, a spice that in recent years has been marketed as a superfood and is now widely available as a latte mix, and the exploitation of Indian farmers. It’s the simultaneous exploitation of land and Indigenous bodies, coupled with the erasure of their connection to these practices and silence about the unjust conditions they work in. It is no wonder the implications of the climate crisis impact predominantly Black and Brown communities.
The crystal boom of 2017 is another example of exploitative practices justified for mainstream wellness. Crystals like quartz form when water and steam carry mineral particles into fractures in the earth. Historical references about the use of crystals can be traced back to Ancient Sumerians, where they could be found in healing formulas. Crystals were also used cosmetically and as jewellery by Ancient Egyptians. In traditional Chinese medicine, gua sha is used to increase the body’s blood flow and promote the connection between mind, body and energy. This has been appropriated as jade rolling for glowing skin.
All this makes me wonder, what healing properties can come from something exploitative?
Apart from promoting glowing skin and eliminating the appearance of wrinkles, the wide availability and use of crystals in mainstream wellness is often presented as something that connects us to the earth. What’s interesting is the cost of this connection to the earth. Crystals mined in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo are connected to human-rights violations, including child labour and environmental destruction. In Madagascar, mining threatens the health of the rainforest, and it has been recorded that 85,000 children work in mines. Such exploitation perpetuates cycles of poverty. It also means that, once again, those racialised as white profit and benefit from practices and exploitative labour of those considered other.
All this makes me wonder, what healing properties can come from something exploitative? While I’m not disputing that these practices aren’t supportive of wellbeing, I’m hoping to highlight the layers that aid ruptures in our connectivity, and how quick fixes exchanged for money are a distraction from working towards undoing collective trauma enacted by defiling systems. Let’s look at the crystal vaginal egg for a second. It is said that using the egg will regulate menstrual cycles and pain, but what about advocating for period leave? Imagine the wonders that rest and knowing that your livelihood is taken care of would do! Instead of long-term action and interventions to serve the collective, we are encouraged to buy vaginal crystals excavated from the earth in a process that is harmful for the local communities where they are mined.
Solutions not rooted in the collective welcome us deeper into the embrace and bed of comfortability at the expense of others
The reality is that solutions and interventions not rooted in the collective welcome us deeper into the embrace and bed of comfortability at the expense of others and the environment. When I first read this investigative report on the mining of crystals, I stopped buying them. Unfortunately, there is no ethical consumption or production through racialised capitalism. The only way I could reconcile the connection I was seeking was by doing what I could to not contribute to the excavation of earth. I saw the report as an invitation to see the power that I yield through my choices.
Going back to the philosophy of hunhu, I am reminded of an illustration shared by artist Joshua Chiundiza, about the flow of relations from a Shona perspective. Although he spoke to it from the perspective of an artist, I turn to the same flow of relations where ivhu (land/soil), mhuka nezvisimwa (plants and animals) and munhu (person) are in a communal relationship, and I wonder what centring the bush would mean. The bush as in earth, and the roots of our traditions and practices. The empire has made it so that we see the bush as something we take from instead of something that is a part of our ecosystems. Recentring the bush and earth-based practices are the antitheses to capitalistic ways of relating to self, others and the earth. So what choices could we make if we centred the bush in our understanding of wellness and the practices we utilise?
Feature image: Nuanzhi Zheng 郑暖之
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.